Asked about her own life, Margaret McNeil, CEO of Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, is noticeably uneasy.
“I have to pause at that question,” she says, pulling her glasses from her face and resting her hands on the table.
The discomfort comes from the fact that McNeil, 63, has devoted a life and career to the care of other people and the betterment of their lives. Speaking about herself seems contradictory.
Canuck Place Children’s Hospice first opened its doors November 30, 1995. The institution is now a thriving pediatric facility that improves quality of life for patients and families alike.
Since 2005, it has had a 250% increase in the number of children and families – from rural areas across B.C. and the Yukon – in hospice care. At any given time, about 1,400 children in B.C. are struggling with a life-threatening condition.
In 2009, the organization realized the hospice could serve only 20% to 25% of children and families in need. This shortfall was the impetus for the birth of Dave Lede House, a second palliative-care facility that is located in Abbotsford.
Last year, McNeil and her team achieved their biggest milestone yet – securing $3 million in funding from the provincial government to expand the services of the Fraser Valley facility.
The plan for a second location had been in the works for a number of years, long before McNeil was named CEO in 2012, which posed a number of unique challenges when she stepped into her role with the organization.
“To have a new leader come in who wasn’t part of the organization, you’ve got to build trust,” she said.
In a workplace where health-care employees and senior management had for over a decade built strong relationships based on trust and cooperation, McNeil knew her mission had to be ironclad.
“You really need a clear vision in order to ensure that your staff are aligned, that staff can see themselves in that vision and how they contribute to it.”
Luckily, vision was one of McNeil’s strengths.
“I was always attracted to community service at a young age; my father was also always involved. When I was looking for what I wanted to study, something that served vulnerable populations was of great interest to me.”
McNeil grew up west of Toronto and spent summers working in Vancouver until she moved permanently in 1978.
After completing her undergraduate at McMaster University, McNeil worked for nearly six years as a registered nurse, a move that would prove to be a stepping stone into a much larger plan.
“I knew during my undergrad that my career wouldn’t be as a nurse,” she recalled. “I was always interested in policy development and how that was really going to be able to then leverage the greater opportunity for programs and services for people who couldn’t advocate for themselves.”
During those years, McNeil worked in the Downtown Eastside, an experience she counts as paramount in her personal and professional growth.
“As a middle-class white girl, I have to say it was one of the most enriching experiences of my entire life because you realize when you are working on the Downtown Eastside that it is a community.
“There were people that would spend their entire lives there and build communities there.… I learned a tremendous amount around communities, how communities support each other in Canada’s poorest postal code and the sense of connection.”
What McNeil learned about community and the overarching structure of health care was an important factor in her choice of graduate school.
McNeil decided to attend Case Western Reserve University, a leading research institution in Cleveland, Ohio.
The move to a conservative state was not without some culture shock.
“When you come from British Columbia, the most left-leaning province in Canada, to a Republican state … you really come face to face with what your values are.”
Yet the change in culture, ideals and government structure only further reinforced her convictions.
“Values around health care being a public responsibility, community responsibility, for those who are less able – all of those values came front and centre and as a relatively young person at that time. To be so clear about what my values were was, to me, a very strong hold when moving forward.”
From there, McNeil went on to act on those values in various positions. She worked with the provincial government helping improve senior services. She worked in major health authorities, integrating a mental health and addictions service – the first in B.C. She worked with BC Housing to bolster emergency shelter systems and add health care services to housing. The list goes on.
So when a recruiter called her about the Canuck Place position, she was admittedly elated.
“I had words spilling out of my mouth,” she recalled. “To me, it was the most wonderful way of bringing together all of my background … to support this marvellous organization and the next part of its development.”
McNeil took to her position knowing it was where she was meant to be. Now, armed with the trust and confidence of staff, she is helping expand the reach of Canuck Place with the opening of beds at Abbotsford's Dave Lede House in 2018.
The Fraser Valley has the highest population growth "plus the greatest number of kids and families in the entire province,” she said. “In less than a couple of years, we will be able to quite significantly increase the number of kids and families that we serve within British Columbia.”
When Dave Lede House's expanded services are fully operational next year, the facility will double the number of pediatric palliative-care beds in B.C.
McNeil speaks appreciatively about her pastimes, her favourite sports and her fondness for beautiful B.C. but, she admits, the thing that really brings her happiness, inevitably, is other people.
“I love to keep good company. To me, keeping good company with people who make me laugh, bring me delight, make me think, have empathy, compassion … that’s really what gives my life joy.”
Join us to celebrate this year’s honourees at the 2017 BC CEO Awards November 8, 2017, hosted at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For tickets and event info, visit www.biv.com/ceo.